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Learning to Walk, Days 21-23, September 17-19, Cabrerets to Pasturat, Pasturat to Cahors, and Cahors to Lascabanes

September 19, 2022

Yesterday’s walk from Pasturat to Cahors did me in. I think it was about 20km. While there was a good climb at the beginning of the day, the afternoon was along the Lot River and pretty much flat. Which, in theory, was very welcome, but I found it a challenge. I think I was simply exhausted and badly needed a rest day, which I am taking today. More on that later. Let’s go back to the day before yesterday. Pech Merle. Oh my. Pech Merle is a series of caves/caverns with at least 30,000 year old drawings. I mentioned it earlier. However, the person I heard say that it was the only cave with drawings open to the public was wrong—or I misheard them. I don’t remember the exact figures, but I think our guide said there are 18 caves with drawings you can still visit, and maybe 180 you can’t. I don’t think that figure is correct, but I hope it is in the right ballpark! Seeing these drawings is one of those lifetime highlight events—like going to the top of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) was three years ago, or our hike in the Dolomites several years before that.

Here’s some of what I learned from the guide. The drawings were made with ochre and something that begins with “m” (the black color) that I can’t remember. It is not possible to date either of these substances. However, there is one part of the painting, a horse’s mane, that was done in charcoal, which can be dated, and that part is 30,000 years old. So they think the dates of all the paintings are a few thousand years either side of that. The frieze done in black, which is of several animals, they believe was done in one sitting by the same artist. They call him (her?) “The black frieze artist” and have recognized their work in other parts of the cave. There are mammoths, bison, horses, one head of a bear, some female figures and a couple drawings they call “the wounded man”. Oh—before I go further, you need to google “Pech Merle” so you can see the paintings, because I have no photos to show you. Photography is strictly forbidden in the caves, to protect the paintings from light. The fine for taking even one photo is 15,000 Euros, and the guide was VERY strict. She insisted people put their phones away because she had had a lot of trouble with a group earlier in the week. You would think people would comply with this, but she had to keep telling one woman repeatedly, “please, I do not want to even see your phone.”

Back to the caves: the drawings were done during an ice age by Cromagnon people, who looked just like us except they were considerably taller than most humans today. I did not know that. They had dark skin and light eyes. I don’t know how they know that, but I trust the scientists have a way to figure that out. And, contrary to our popular myths, they were not “cavemen/women.” They may have sheltered in shallow recessions in the cliffs, and they also probably built shelters, but they did not live deep in the caves where the paintings are. That would have been far too dangerous, and they would not have survived trying to live there. Since it was an ice age, the caves would have been far too cold, and they could not light a fire without asphyxiating themselves. Plus, animals like bears lived in the caves. The guide said it was very dangerous for them even to enter the caves. They would have only had handheld animal fat lamps, in stones they had carved a hollow in to, with a bit of plant matter for a wick. It was so risky for them to go so far into the caves that the historians think the only reason they would take the risk to go in and paint is for spiritual reasons.

The paintings have been there 30,000 years and were only discovered about a century ago by three teens—a sixteen year old boy, his 13 year old sister and another boy, who wasn’t really keen to go, but went along with them. The ringleader had learned about the caves from the priest, who was a spelunker and a pre-historian. He had shown the boy the caves they knew about, closer to the surface, and when he realized how fascinated the teen was with them, the priest strictly forbade him from going into them any further. The teen was convinced there was far more to discover and that something significant was there. So he and the other two stole candles from the church, told no one but their grandmother where they were going, found a hole down into the larger cave network and discovered the paintings. They were gone for ten hours. They forgot to mark their way and realized that in their exploring and excitement over what they had found they had no idea how to get out. But then they realized they could follow the wax drippings from the candles. When they finally resurfaced, it was midnight. The grandmother was there on the mountainside praying, and they got into a heap of trouble.

The paintings are amazing. And it is just mind-blowing to look at them and realize human beings were there, painting them more than 30,000 years ago. I loved the spotted horses, and the head of the bear, and the hands. They are “negative” hands, one in ochre, and the others in the black pigment. They are done by a very precise “spitting” method of spray painting. They placed their hand on the rock, put the mixture of paint in their mouths, and spit the paint around their hand. The guide said it is not an easy technique to master. There are also footprints—not painted ones, real ones. They don’t know just how old they are, but they can tell from the layer of calcite over them that they are at least 12,000 years old, and are probably those of a 10-12-year-old. The cave entrance the painters would have used was blocked by a landslide,—that’s why they went undiscovered until the teens found another way in, so they know the footprints predate the landslide. Some of the places where the paintings are would only have been accessible by crawling through a tunnel on your stomach. Of course, we did not have to do that! They have excavated the tunnel so you can walk through, but you can see the level of the original tunnel because the rock from the excavation is piled on top of what would have been the original height. I could NEVER have done that with my claustrophobia.

After I left Pech Merle I had 19-20 km to walk. I’m sure that’s part of why I was so exhausted yesterday. I had to move quickly to walk that far after the tour in the morning. But since there were only three guests at the gite where I stayed in Pasturat that night, one other couple and me, I had a room to myself again!

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  1. Patricia Decker permalink

    It will come as no surprise that I am OBSESSED with your breakfast companion. Who looks to be a delight. I also love the confirmation that people make art. We can’t not make art. Been looking at the cave paintings and they’re simply astonishing. Have a lovely rest day and take care of that shoulder.

  2. man, I am enjoying your journal and photos so much….it is so different than my world…that I feel a refresh every morning I mentally join you on your amazing pilgrimage. you’re wonderful !…(full of wonder !) love to you…

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